Every year, millions of visitors cross the Cape Cod Canal over the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, most of them barely slowing down as they traverse Routes 6 and 28 on their way to celebrated Cape destinations to the east and south.
That’s a shame, because a town that straddles the canal offers history, recreation, boating, and sunsets that rival or surpass the rest of the Cape. Then again, part of Bourne’s charm lies in the fact that so many people do bypass it.
Elaine Price is a former New Yorker who purchased a cottage in the Monument Beach section of town in the late 1990s from Mitt Romney, then a successful businessman who had owned it for 15 years.
“It’s a place that time forgot,” Price told the Cape Cod Times earlier this year. “It’s proximity to Boston. . . . It’s beauty. . . . There’s no pretension. It’s a great location.”
Grover Cleveland bought an estate and 100 acres near Agawam Point in 1890 (between his non-consecutive terms as president) at the urging of his friend Joseph Jefferson, who touted the sport fishing and solitude Cleveland could find there.
President Cleveland’s home on Buzzards Bay was the summer White House from 1893-97, long before John F. Kennedy made Hyannisport famous. A train station was built to accommodate Cleveland’s visits, and he kept up on developments in Washington with a telegraph machine installed there. The tiny station still sits near the Aptucxet Trading Post in historic Bourne Village.
Cleveland spent a lot of time at the house in Bourne, where two of his five children were born. The structure came to be known as Gray Gables, as did the seaside neighborhood around it . The main road is called Presidents Road, while other winding streets in the area once known as Monument Neck are named for Cleveland’s friend Jefferson and members of his Cabinet. Cleveland Ledge Light in Buzzards Bay also acknowledges his ties to the area.
Cleveland died in 1908, and Gray Gables was sold by his son in 1920. The house was later converted to a restaurant and inn, which burned down in 1973. The lot sat empty for about three decades before a private home was built there.
Cleveland once reportedly told a friend, “I never saw a place I liked so well . . . and I never was so contented and happy,” as at Gray Gables, where he was known to meander about town in a weathered fedora and fishing boots.
Other public officials who have owned summer homes in Bourne include two former Boston mayors, John Collins (Buttermilk Bay) and Kevin White (Monument Beach); former US Speaker of the House Joseph Martin (Sagamore Beach); and longtime US Representative Hastings Keith (Monument Beach). White was at his summer home in 1972 when Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern named White his running mate, then quickly withdrew the offer.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the Navy, was on a destroyer as part of the first parade of ships through the Cape Cod Canal in 1914. The waterway was completed after five years by connecting and expanding the Manomet and Scusset rivers; the 7-mile-long canal was barely 100 feet wide and relatively shallow. (This engineering feat is said to have been explored and proposed many times, including by both Myles Standish and George Washington — in Washington’s case as a way of defeating British blockades during the Revolutionary War.)
Despite being a marvel for its time, hefty toll fees and its challenging navigability kept ship owners away and rendered it economically unfeasible. The US government purchased the canal from its owner, New York financier August Belmont, in 1928, and the US Army Corps of Engineers proceeded to widen the waterway to nearly 500 feet and increase its depth to 32 feet, in a project that employed up to 1,400 men during the Depression. All three current canal bridges, including the Railroad Bridge near the Buzzards Bay entrance, were constructed in the mid-1930s, and the completed canal became a viable alternative that saved ships more than 60 miles of travel in each direction around Cape Cod. An estimated 20,000 vessels now use the canal annually.
Most of the land and the canal itself lie within the boundaries of Bourne, meaning that anyone who visits the Cape over land crosses through the town. The Cape Cod Canal visitors center, which is on the Cape side and offers timelines, activities, and exhibits for all ages, is in Sandwich at the Cape Cod Bay end of the canal, next to the US Coast Guard station. It is open from May to October.
“Those vehicular spans carry millions of people over the canal,” said Tom Cahir, a former state representative and lifelong resident of Bourne who is now the director of the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority. “Many of them stop at the scenic overlook in Bournedale on the mainland side, which has great views up and down the canal.”
The paths along both sides of the waterway have center lines to direct the flow of walkers, runners, bicyclists, and in-line skaters, who enjoy outstanding vistas with their workouts. Fishing along the banks of the canal or by boat is popular. On a steamy day in late June, Fernando Ortiz of Brockton was there trolling for scup and pogies while he chatted with passersby. His wife and 4-year-old son were enjoying the breeze near the Railroad Bridge, a vertical lift span with towers that reach 270 feet above the shore.
Bourne has plenty of recreation, including the 1.4-mile Bournedale Hills Trail, which starts at Bourne Scenic Park
on the canal, and several others on the Cape Cod side with forest and marshland paths, such as Red Brook Pond Conservation Area and Pocasset Town Forest.
Among other favorite summer pastimes are: Cape Cod League baseball featuring the Bourne Braves, who play at Doran Park on the grounds of Upper Cape Regional Technical School, just off the Bourne Rotary (a grilled hot dog on a toasted roll is mandatory); trips for ice cream to Somerset Creamery in Cataumet, Whistle Stop Ice Cream Shop in Monument Beach, or Shawn Patrick’s Ice Cream Vault in Buzzards Bay; and breakfast fare at Becky’s Bakery in Monument Beach (the breakfast sandwiches are outstanding).
Cahir is a fan of The Daily Brew in Cataumet, where locals relax with coffee, conversation, and, quite frequently, their laptops on a weekend morning.
For dinner, Mezza Luna in Buzzards Bay has been a favorite for more than 70 years, even rebounding from a devastating fire in 2007 to reopen 15 months later. Likewise, the Chart Room in Cataumet, on the grounds of Kingman Yacht Center, is a summer tradition for Cahir and many others, open mid-May to Columbus Day. You might not expect to find it here, but Bopha’s Stir Crazy, which offers Cambodian cuisine in Pocasset, grew out of the dreams of a woman who fled her homeland in 1981 and opened her own restaurant just eight years.
The Sunset Grille is just off MacArthur Boulevard (Route 28) in Bourne, in the clubhouse of the Brookside Club golf course, and offers seafood and steaks in a hilltop setting.
“You want to see a sunset?” Cahir marveled. “It’s the nicest sunset on Cape Cod.”
The club’s second-floor Atlantic Room offers expansive views of the Railroad Bridge and Buzzards Bay; it is booked for weddings twice a week
Bourne is among both the oldest settlements and the youngest towns on the Cape. It was founded in 1627 as part of Sandwich, the Cape’s oldest town, and it finally was incorporated as the Cape’s 15th and final town in 1884, named for Jonathan Bourne, who was born there and made his fortune as a whaling captain in New Bedford. He worked on behalf of his birthplace to break from Sandwich, and the town was grateful.
Long before Bourne was born, the Aptucxet Trading Post opened for business in 1627 as what some call the oldest store in America. The Pilgrims traded there with Native Americans and Dutch from New Amsterdam, among others, and the 1930 replica trading post near the canal in Bourne Village sits on the foundation of the original building, near the Gray Gables Railroad Station, a windmill, a replica salt works, and herb and wildflower gardens.
Bourne is one of several villages in the town, which also includes Buzzards Bay, Sagamore, Sagamore Beach, Bournedale, Pocasset, Monument Beach, and Cataumet. Buzzards Bay Park abuts the canal on the mainland side and is the site of weekly concerts every Thursday evening, starting at 6:30, through Aug. 23. It is also home to the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which offers seagoing, engineering, and environmental programs and boasts outstanding job placement rates. It also hosts the town’s biggest annual event, the Bourne Scallop Fest, which draws several thousand people and is scheduled Sept. 21-23.
Cahir recalled working with the town to hire a planner when he represented the region in the state legislature in the early 1990s. “I was stunned that the town didn’t have a long-range plan,” Cahir said.
“In the 14 years I represented Bourne, Falmouth, Sandwich, and Mashpee, the other three towns, particularly Mashpee and Sandwich, experienced unprecedented growth — in the 80 to 90 percent range. In Bourne, there was little or no movement. But I look back now and I’m pretty proud; Bourne’s turned out OK.”